The Smythes by Rea Irvin
The Smythes

Rea Irvin was an American graphic artist, best known as a co-founder and frequent contributor to the influential cartoon magazine The New Yorker. He drew various illustrations and cartoons for them and was their first art editor. Irvin furthermore wrote history by designing The New Yorker's mascot Eustace Tilley. While best known for his stylish and elegant one-panel cartoons Irvin also drew a few rare comics in his career, including his best known series 'The Smythes' (1930-1936).

Rea Irvin was born in 1881 in San Francisco. He studied at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute but dropped out after six months. At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century he published his first cartoons in the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Evening Post. To earn a living he also worked as theatrical and film actor and a pianist. He was a member of the Players, a private theatrical and literary club at Gramercy Park. During the First World War he served in the U.S. Army. Much of his early work was published in Red Book, Green Book, Cosmopolitan, the Honolulu Advertiser and the humorous weekly Life. Irvin worked as an art editor for Life until he was fired in 1924. Among his early work were also short-lived weekday comic/cartoon features like 'Isn't He The Sly Dog?' (American-Journal-Examiner, 20 August-21 September 1908), 'How Romantic Is' (NEA Syndicate, 24 September-3 October 1907) and 'Even So' (The New York World, 6 through 21 October 1908).

It Costs Money to Love the Belgians

In February 1915 he drew a text comic for Vanity Fair named 'It Costs Money to Love the Belgians' (1915). It features a man named Mr. Goodhart who has to reach into his pocket wherever he goes to buy war bonds to support Belgium during the First World War. The work is notable for motivating readers to donate money to Belgian war victims and their struggling army at a time when the United States still held a neutral stance. In 1917 the USA entered World War I after all. On 29 November of that year Irvin drew a text comic which ridiculed the Germany army in the form of alphabetic rhyme.

In May 1920 Irvin drew another text comic, 'Wives of Famous Men', which depicted various moments in Western history when historical characters had trouble with their spouses. The artwork was made to resemble an ancient woodcut. Irvin was somewhat of an eccentric man. He regularly wore a fedora hat with a very wide brim. His home in Newton, Connecticut, had numerous animals, including some horses he called his "models". The artist worked in a very round and elegant style, inspired by the then fashionable Art Deco an his love for Chinese and Japanese scroll-paintings. It gave his work a sophisticated look which suited the various prestigous magazines he made illustrations for.

Wives of Famous Men
Wives of Famous Men

No magazine fit his graphic style better than The New Yorker, in which he was present from its very first issue on 21 February 1925. The magazine was created by journalists Harold Ross and his wife Jane Grant, with the goal of establishing a humor magazine offering room for various amusing short stories, columns and particularly cartoons. The pair wanted to promote a classy public image and therefore the first cover had to instantly bring across this message. Initially the editors wanted to show the Manhattan skyline revealed behind theater curtains being pulled away. At the last minute Irvin came up with a more eye-catching idea. He drew a dandy in a high hat, inspired by a 1834 caricature by James Fraser, depicting Count d'Orsay. The dandy sported a monocle and observed a butterfly through it. Columnist Corey Ford named the character Eustace Tilley, inspired by the last name of one of his aunts.

The New Yorker cover by Rea Irvin

The cover had the desired effect. The first issue reached the right demographic and established The New Yorker's reputation for quality reading. Soon The New Yorker became one of the best-selling American magazines in the world. Various other newspapers and magazines across the globe who tried to maintain a similar sophisticated public image all took their inspiration from it. Naturally Eustace Tilley was featured as often as possible. He not only appeared on several covers, but traditionally also heads the magazine's 'Talk of the Town' section. In that vicinity he is arguably one of the most recognizable magazine mascots in the world, along with the Playboy Bunny (Hugh Hefner's Playboy) and Alfred E. Neuman (Mad Magazine, designed by Norman Mingo).

The New Yorker cover by Rea Irvin

Irvin was closely involved with every issue as uncredited art editor. He designed The New Yorker's display typeface, inspired by the lettering of Allen Lewis, which has since then been named the "Irvin type". He kept a close eye on the cartoons featured in the magazine's pages. Much like chief editor Harold Ross he too was a notorious control freak. He once scorned a cartoonist for not drawing "better dust" on a cover of a Model T standing on a dusty back road. Another time he had technical personnel check a drawing of a PT boat, because he feared the torpedo tubes didn't look realistically enough. And when he noticed too many cartoons had featured characters counting sheep he asked the editors to cut them down a bit. Irvin naturally also created various illustrations, caricatures and cartoons of his own. One of his best known was 'The Young Man Who Asked for a Pack of Camels in Dunhills', which shows a man in a tobacco store ignored by the store owner. Most of his cartoons were either one-panel illustrations with humorous captions or pantomime comics where the gentle punchline lay in the humorous details.


The Smythes

In 1930 Irvin created a newspaper gag-a-day comic strip, 'The Smythes' (15 June 1930-25 October 1936), which ran in The New York Herald Tribune. The gags centered around a middleclass family and mostly featured gentle humor. He was also active as an advertising artist and created illustrations for Murad cigarettes, the Tennis Club and the Country Club.

Irvin stayed with The New Yorker until its founder Harold Ross passed away in 1951. After his death Irvin's good relationship with the magazine started to diminish. Ross's successors were less interested in Irvin's cartoons and refused many of them. He passed away in 1972 in Frederiksted, Saint Croix, at age 90 from a stroke. James Thurber credited Irvin with "doing more to develop the style and excellence of the New Yorker drawings and covers, than anyone else, and being the main and shining reason that the magazine's comic art in the first two years was far superior to its humorous prose."


No Fork, or Cathing the Waiter's Eye (1930)

Rea Irvin posts on filboidstudge.blogspot.com

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